Best foot forward

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It’s been a big year. And it’s not even half over.

I write this in a period of… forced rest, shall we say. I haven’t run in nearly three weeks. Possibly I’ve forgotten how to. Is that a thing?

Tuesday 5th June was a big day. We flew over to North Cyprus, the home of my father and my unpronounceable name, a well-preserved Mediterranean paradise, for the start of a holiday that would be anything but a holiday. The flight itself was the first ordeal: we were travelling with Andy’s mum who hadn’t flown in 25 years and my aunt who has no kneecaps and can’t walk further than the front door. We were due to change planes at Istanbul with just one hour to make the transfer and with the help of pre-booked “special assistance”, whatever form that would take. Special assistance basically amounted to Gatwick Airport staff telling us to walk to Departures to pick up the wheelchair we needed to reach Departures, and Turkish Airlines forcing my aunt to sit in the centre of the plane by a window because her disability would make her a danger to other passengers during emergency evacuation. It’s not a very optimistic policy, if I may say so.

Then our first flight was delayed, leaving only half an hour for the transfer. If Istanbul Airport staff hadn’t saved the day with a motorised buggy we might still be looking for Gate 307.

When we finally landed at Ercan Airport, North Cyprus, the island was already cloaked in a navy velvet darkness. Every time I visit I forget how different the darkness is from the darkness in London. I mean for starters it’s not a hazy sodium orange, it’s profoundly, thickly dark. Andy wrestled the cumbersome minivan we had hired around the twisting mountain roads to the soundtrack of our jokes and daft questions, relieved to be nearly there. I made a pithy quip about which of my family would uphold the tradition of falling over and needing hospital.

Within an hour we turned into an exclusive looking cul-de-sac high above the shoreline and pulled up in front of our villa. Or rather, underneath it. Turns out when you build a villa in the side of a mountain the fourth floor and the ground floor are sort of the same thing, and both entrances need a minimum of two knees per person. Ah.

Somehow we managed to squeeze the van into an alley at the back/top of the villa where we dropped off passengers and luggage, and with my expert banksmanship definitely didn’t scrape any water hydrants on the way back out. By this point I’d been awake and on edge for fifteen solid hours, and all I wanted was not to be wearing wedge heels and high waisted slacks, because what kind of vain moron dresses like that for travelling. On my way back down the cobbled pavement to guide Andy into the underground parking bay, I might have been a little bit stompy.

SHIT. Crack. Boom. Wedge caught cobble edge, foot turned inwards, I hit the deck. That crack resounded in my ears. It was like I’d heard it from inside my body, not through my ears.

The systems check kicked in. Am I bleeding? Not enough to matter. Can I put weight on that foot? Just about – enough for it not to be broken, not enough to convince Andy I was OK. Within half an hour it had ballooned, but I insisted it was just a sprain and I could tough it out with rest and elevation, otherwise known as bed. At 3am I was woken by excruciating pain, and realised I had no idea how hospitals worked in North Cyprus. So we didn’t go to any.

Lying awake with my right foot burning a hole through the mattress, all I could think about was the roasting I would get from my mum and sister the following day. No way I could admit to be the family klutz so early on in the week. I’ll admit that my overriding motive for avoiding treatment was not to be the person that caused a fuss, not to spend the whole holiday as the centre of attention.

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Oh, did I mention why we were on holiday with half the family? We were there to get married.

The run up to the Saturday would be hectic; making sure all fifty of our guests landed OK and made it to their respective villas, buying last minute provisions, greeting and hosting welcome dinners and barely being off our feet. I didn’t get rest but I did at least stick my foot on the dashboard while Andy drove us everywhere – plans to split the work so we could relax more went out of the window. Each day the foot progressed through shades of purple and green, the swelling straining the straps of my flip flop. I still harboured hopes of a wedding morning run in the mountains. Andy growled at me a lot.

Saturday 9th June was a BIG day. And after a few false starts – probably the first wedding you’ll read about where the bride arrived early but the ceremony was delayed because the groom had to flag down a coach – it was a FUCKING AWESOME day. We had so much fun, or as much fun as you can have in a gown and a suit in 38 degrees of heat. I forced my feet into glittery Vivienne Westwood high heels for the ceremony and danced all night in bare feet, determined to enjoy my big day. All that hassle had been worth it. The stress dripped from my shoulders, the pain in my foot even let up. It felt perversely good.

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The rest of the week was a poolside haze. My sister’s wedding present – a personalised hip flask full of gin – came everywhere with me. I could dangle my feet in the infinity pool, gin in hand, gaze out at the sea and pretend I was in an episode of the Night Manager but with fewer terrorists. Now that I wasn’t stubbornly dancing and dashing around on it my foot would heal in a jiffy, right?

Saturday 16th June was a big day. A World Cup barbecue at a friend’s house, the other end of the Northern Line. Apparently it was a ten minute walk away from the tube. Ten minutes after Andy said this, we were still at least fifteen minutes away at my hobbling pace. I’d never felt like such a burden to him before, and that’s saying something.

Monday 18th June was a big day. Two whole weeks away from work, the longest holiday I’ve ever taken without spending it moonlighting. Never mind remembering how to function as an adult, I’d forgotten how much walking I have to do. At the end of the day I was in so much pain I considered sleeping at the office and eating the goldfish for dinner.

Tuesday 19th June was the day I finally admitted defeat. The swelling had gone down but my foot still wasn’t bending where it was meant to bend, and the pain was getting worse. I made it through the day with the help of one of Andy’s old crutches and signed in at St Helier Urgent Care Centre at 5pm, mumbling vaguely about a two week old sprain that wouldn’t heal. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get rated as a priority. One woman came in shortly after me with a toe missing and a young guy in overalls was washing chemicals out of his eyes, and even they had to wait nearly two hours. Andy brought me a picnic of Capri Sun and crisps. We settled in.

When I was called in the nurse on duty asked if I smoked or drank as she prodded my foot. Confident that it would all turn out to be a waste of time I brazened it out for Andy’s benefit, then she hit a spot in the middle of my foot and I screamed. “I’m going to send you for an X-ray,” she smiled grimly. “That was your fifth metatarsal.” The first thing I thought was, “That’s what happened to David Beckham, at least it’s World Cup appropriate.” Then I realised what she was saying. You don’t X-ray sprains. Drat bugger balls bollocks arse.

Thankfully the fracture was so small I got away without using a cast, but I did get fitted with a snazzy support boot. When I asked how long I would need to wear it she said told me six weeks from the point of fracture, meaning another four weeks at least, giving a good deal of emphasis to that last bit. I avoided Andy’s glare.

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This Thursday should have been a big day. I had a place in the SVN Teddy Bear’s Picnic Challenge, aiming to rack up another marathon for the 100 Club bid. It took me a few days to face up to the fact I wouldn’t be running it, and email Traviss. I gave away my ticket to the Salomon trail running festival at Box Hill. I did a load of laundry and it had no running clothes in it. None whatsoever.

Then a large brown envelope flopped onto my doormat. It was the long-awaited issue 9 of Ultra magazine, which is exciting enough in itself, but this issue would have one of my own articles in it. I did a little one foot jig as I re-read it. The article was about a race I did 18 months ago, wrote about a year ago, and I was finally seeing it in print! I remembered staying up to the wee hours to finish it, my plans to write it over a weekend scuppered. That felt like yesterday.

In an ideal world I’d spend all my time either running or writing about running – as it is I have to squeeze them in around gainful employment, seeing friends and family, every Saturday committed to QPR, the list goes on. There’s so much I want to do, too; I’m on promises to try kickboxing, bouldering, Crossfit and manicures but they somehow keep falling out of the diary. I never have time for anything. I’ve almost run out of time to bitch about not having time.

But here’s the thing, I do now. Instead of bemoaning the running I can’t do, I thought about what else I can do with that time, googled “exercise on a broken foot”. Swimming is high up there, stationery cycling, some yoga moves… presumably hang-gliding and parachuting are worth a punt too. I’ve already read four novels and I’m working through A-level maths. Now that I don’t have a wedding to plan, I’ve even managed a bit of rest.

Not that I’d wish an injury like this on myself or anyone else, I think this particular cloud might have a silver lining. Obviously I’d rather be running (as would my appetite) but now it’s not me making the decision not to run I feel oddly liberated. I feel less guilty about devoting more time to my blog, or to reading the backlog of twenty or so books on my iPad; I’m saying yes when my friends ask if I’m free to catch up after work. I’m spending quality time with my new husband. What a novelty.

That’s not to say I’ve given up on running – the sooner I get fit again the sooner I can stop gawping at people who run by (I only notice I’m doing it when the saliva hits my chin). But I am going to treat the next four weeks as a gift, not a burden. I’m going to appreciate the time I have, take advantage of new opportunities, do the things I “never have time for”. I’m going to appreciate my body more, pay closer attention to those niggles and make the most of my fitness. I’m going to have to work bloody hard to get it back.

And the minute the fracture clinic gives me the all clear, I’ll be back on those trails.

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Salomon Trail Running Workshop

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Usually when I line up at the start of a trail race, I look like something out of the Salomon bargain basement catalogue. Shoes, race vest, belt pack, shorts, sunglasses, running jacket, bottles, knickers, all plastered with Salomon branding. So when our club offered places on a Salomon sponsored trail running workshop with a Salomon athlete, I was quite careful to moderate my outfit and not look like a total fangirl.

Since I reserve my Fellraisers for the claggiest of clag mud and mostly wear Altras in the summer, the Timps were the obvious choice for a hot dry day with enough texture underfoot to need some grip. In fact the only Salomon thing I ended up taking was my race vest and that has lasted me four years and counting; it is basically irreplaceable (jinx). Although when we got to the Box Hill car park we did get the chance to try out some of the new season light trail and racing shoes and the latest version of the S-Lab vest, which takes the existing awesome design and adds the only feature it was missing, front pockets for easy access food and maps. It was useful to have a chance to test kit – as much as my little duck feet love their Altras, I had harboured hopes of picking up some Salomon Sense Rides for road to trail and mixed terrain running, but my size 5.5s could barely fit into the size 7s on offer. I love my feet, but they’re really not shoe shaped.

Who’s Who

The group was made up of runners from both Clapham Chasers and Advent Running, and it was great to mix with another club in a sociable setting – especially one that like ours is based in the city but has a small core of trail fanatics. Our coach for the day was Matt Buck, a personal trainer, trail runner and Salomon sponsored athlete, and the plan was to learn a bit about trail running techniques, have a leisurely trot around the Downs and get lots and lots of photos. Matt had already run one session that morning before ours was due to start at lunchtime, and I caught up with the first lot of Chasers at the cafe – a short run but a surprisingly tough one, they said. I’ll be honest, when I heard the word “short” I pre-empted a bit of a sulk.

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Warmup

We started off by running half a mile through the more densely wooded areas where I got to chatting with one of Matt’s glamorous assistants for the day, a client of his and fellow trail runner called Neil, who was ostensibly there to help corral runners but mainly for the same reason we all were – because why not. Any excuse really, if I was in his position I’d volunteer for every damn opportunity to run up Box Hill. The shade of the trees was perfect, brushing the heat from our skin and lighting up the air with a warm green glow. Bliss.

Back to basics

We found a clearing where Matt talked a little about the importance of looking ahead, which is the first time I realised a) just how back to basics we were going to go today and b) just how much we needed to. The group being a fairly eclectic mix, I assumed that I would be one of the more experienced trail runners out there, and on paper I was – but apparently one with some awful bad habits and probably the most to learn. Looking ten paces in front and not straight down is not just harder than it sounds, it’s downright counter-intuitive to begin with. We were reminded many times to keep our heads up and that reminder rings in my ears to this day. Eventually though it became clear how valuable that was – not only for being able to see but being able to breathe too.

The other key bit of advice was about footwork – namely taking small steps and keeping high knees. Being as undisciplined a runner as it’s possible to be, I’ve only ever done knee drills as part of the team before cross country races and that’s because I’m terrified of defying the team captains. Retraining my knees to stay high became even more important once we got the hang of looking ahead, but it also had the pleasant side effect of making me feel lighter and faster as I ran. Which is sort of the point.

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Down we go

We then moved on to my favourite subject – downhill running. Another thing I basically considered myself to be god of, until I learned just how wrong I do it. I mean, wrong isn’t exactly bad, but the older I get the more my kamikaze technique (or lack of one) is likely to stitch me up – at least knowing how to do it correctly I can choose to be kamikaze, instead of being one by default. The key was taking small lights steps, landing on our toes and balls of our feet, and if that sounds like a mad thing to do going downhill, well, it felt it too. But it was surprisingly easy to get used to once I loosened my shoulders, and definitely less shredding on the old quads. We did three reps going down towards the junction with the lower trail, where a family of four tried to enjoy their picnic and pretended not to notice the 12 or so screeching lunatics barrelling towards them with no apparent control. Happy weekend guys.

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What goes down must come up

The final lesson was the one I was most looking forward to. We started by climbing partway up the smooth slope of Box Hill (no steps for us today) and the combination of the hill, the heat and my lack of fitness nearly knocked me out cold. Huddled in a rare spot of shade Matt reiterated the importance of high knees and good posture, even more crucial for uphill climbs than for level running, simply because being hunched over dramatically reduces lung capacity and can cause you to run out of breath sooner. Again it was common sense more than revelation, but to someone like me with ingrained bad habits it was easier said than done. Between photo ops we tried a couple of short burst runs up the rest of the hill, hopping from tree to tree to allow for rests in the shade.

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The most valuable technique I learned that day was to bounce on the balls of my feet going uphill just the same way as we had done downhill, and use the springiness of my legs rather than allowing heavy landings to drain my energy. It was tiring to begin with of course, but it made such a huge and immediate difference to my climbs. And to my state of mind, actually. You’d be surprised how much less gruelling a hill can look when you’re staring at the sky and not the ground. This was why he’d been so strict about looking ten paces ahead before, because you really can’t keep your head up if you don’t know where your feet are about to land. As I gasped for breath at the top all those lessons started to fall into place.

Home sweet home

We wound our way back to the car park via the trails less travelled, routes around the North Downs I didn’t even know were there let alone tried running on. Tiptoeing through the tree cover was glorious but bloody hell was I ready for a break – I’ve rarely got to the end of a run so thoroughly exhausted. Whether it was the terrain, the heat or the fact that we’d been outside for so long, if you’d asked me to say how far we’d run without looking at my watch I’d have guessed at least 10k. When we reached the viewpoint for our last photo op however, we had barely scraped three miles. Three miles?! How could three slow moving miles possibly be so hard? And how did Matt manage to do three or four of these sessions in a day?

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It was bloody worth it though. Worth it to learn real techniques from a real professional trail runner. Worth it to discover new ways to enjoy an old trail. Worth it to meet new friends, from a club with a lot in common with our own. Worth it to experience trail running as a new sport again. And just three days later I ran one of the easiest, most enjoyable and most satisfying marathons of my career, all thanks to the techniques we were taught that day.

The all-Salomon wardrobe will be back out soon…

Thanks to Neil Williams of Advent Running for all the photos, including the cover image – how he managed to get so many pictures while we ran is a miracle!

 

 

 

 

London Marathon 2018 – the day after

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Cover photo courtesy of the supremely talented Neil Dejyothin

Resume the position. Feet up, laptop on, well, lap. I’ve even got the glass of wine (don’t judge me).

So, did I leave it all out on the course yesterday? It’s hard to tell; I certainly left about six pints of water out there in the form of sweat (and a handful of tears). Did I run hard? No, no I fucking didn’t. I ran smart; I wanted to get to the end on my own two feet and not in the back of an ambulance. It was 24 degrees out there but it felt closer to 34; the only marathon I’ve ever run that was hotter was the Hampshire Hoppit last year and I pretty much had to walk that guy from start to finish. Did I confront my fears?

You know what, I think I did.

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I faced up to the danger of the heat, and embraced it. It’s just another factor you can’t control, and frankly it was nice to get a decent bit of sun. I faced up to the likelihood of a slow finish time. That is to say, I started off like the clappers, but in a pace that was comfortable and hardly troubling my heart rate. In fact the lead I gained over my 4hr20 pace band was over 8 minutes after halfway and I’d been on course for sub 4hrs for the first 10k. But when I realised it was becoming unsustainable, I did the sensible thing and dialled back. After seeing the countless bodies lying on the side of the road I’m bloody glad I did.

I’m not exaggerating about the perceived heat by the way – as someone with experience of near-equatorial temperatures, that was proper sunblasted bone dry heat. Not the muggy fug like a bad trip in a sauna that you usually get in what passes for an English summer. But gosh it was fun. Like a 26 mile long carnival with runners instead of floats. One of my clubmates even stopped for a cider on the way round. Let’s be honest, nobody’s counting times for yesterday.

London 2018 pace chart

London 2018 map

I faced up to the reality of not being able to finish, right from the start. But I also decided that I would finish this race come hell or high water (not far off), and I knew exactly what I’d have to do to make it so. Drink, eat, drink. After mile 2 there were water stops pretty much every mile plus Lucozade drink and gel stops sprinkled in between, not to mention the good residents of East London and their many slices of orange and buckets of jelly babies. The trick turned out to be keeping my body temperature down from the outside as well as in: namely, drinking half of every bottle of water and dousing my thighs, head and neck with the other half. It worked a treat, but I was still bone dry before the next water station.

I faced up to the crowds. However overwhelming I found them last time round, I realised the only thing to do would be to embrace them. And my god did they put on a show. This is what makes London Marathon so great, and so different from any other – the indescribable atmosphere. Whenever I felt a bit wobbly all I had to do was wave back and smile and I was carried along with another surge of cheer. London Marathon IS the crowds and yesterday made me so blisteringly proud to be an adopted Londoner.

I faced the no mans land beyond my comfort zone. This would be my 41st official marathon finish, but the majority of those have been on trails, in ultras or on low key races, where the pressure doesn’t affect me. The runners there are a different breed altogether; a co-operative of like-minded people, a subculture even. A runner drops, and three people stop to help them up – a few seconds is unlikely to matter, and a race is just another race. On the other hand London is, for most people, their first or only experience of a marathon, and it is nervewracking as fuck. I was pushed and elbowed – not accidentally – on a number of occasions, including one where a guy shoved me out of the water queue to pick up the bottle I was reaching for. It pissed me off, but then I remembered how he must be feeling, imagined how he saw yet another body between him and the water on a hot day. These aren’t the SVN regulars, or the Centurion regulars, or the perennially friendly 100 Marathon Clubbers – there’s no place for etiquette here. These are people miles out of their own comfort zones while I’m barely dipping a toe out of mine. For me, the scariest thing about London will always be other people. But I faced them.

I faced the fear of failure, and in doing so took my own fate into my hands. Instead of handicaps, I found challenges. Instead of disappointment, I have resolve. Yesterday made me realise what I could do if I stopped finding excuses not to try. Four hours and thirty nine minutes on the road is nothing to write home about, for me, but it’s also a pretty respectable time for the second hottest race I’ve ever run – Hampshire, by comparison, took me almost an hour longer. I know I did well yesterday, and I know I can go faster.

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Finally, I faced myself; or rather, I faced my definition of myself. I am not defined by my fears, my hates, my foibles. I am defined by what I want to define myself by. We all are.

#spiritoflondon

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London Marathon 2018 – the night before

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I’m stretched out on the sofa, my feet on Andy’s lap like they usually are, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc within reach of my left hand. We’ve had our thin crust pizza and salad for dinner, a pre-race routine of mine which Andy is happy to adopt for the night. Bedtime won’t be later than 8pm, but there’s no legislating for when I’ll actually get to sleep.

Having exchanged fitness for about a stone in weight, I’m not at my peak for a road marathon. Or any marathon. Or running at all. And the last week at work has included managing a broadcast rehearsal on top of a large scale office move, and consequently chronic pain that became so bad on Tuesday night I had to get a cab home from work because I couldn’t even walk to the station. So, there will be some management of expectations tomorrow.

Is that right though; is that the mindset to take in? Treat the race with respect, certainly, don’t take a finish for granted – but that’s not the same as preparing excuses. That paragraph up there, that’s a classic fear of failure. I take up to a month to write blogs because I’m afraid of putting something out that people will hate, or has mistakes, or is constructed poorly. I’m afraid of going into work some days because I still have no natural aptitude for my job, two and a half years in, and constantly fucking it up is kind of exhausting. I have to persuade myself to attend running sessions with my club because I don’t know if I can get to the end of a 6 mile run. I used to run the damn sessions.

I hadn’t been aware of how much this fear pervades my every decision until recently, but now every time I catch myself in a negative mindset I ask myself “Am I just afraid of failing?” and the answer is never “No, absolutely not.” I mean it’s not always a resounding yes either, but as long as it remains a possibility I’m not making the best of the opportunity I have.

That opportunity is a place in the London Marathon, one I almost didn’t get. I had wanted to run this race ever since I started running, and had applied for the ballot unsuccessfully year after year. I finally earned it with a Good for Age run in the 2015 Manchester Marathon, found out a week before London 2016 that the Manchester course had been incorrectly measured and believed I would lose my spot despite being basically on the start line. Happily, even the penalty applied to the qualifying threshold was within my now unofficial PB finish time and I had two years’ worth of entry to the race.

Running it in 2016, I was still relatively fit but very out of practice, and I was so nervous around the crowds that I didn’t pick up a single drink or gel on the whole course. It was miserable. I finished under 4 hrs, but I blew up at the end and nearly passed out at supper. Turns out, running a marathon on a warm day without calories or water is a fucking stupid idea. You’re welcome, anyone who thought they’d try that.

So my memory of London has so far been one of failure. I failed to get my target time, I failed to manage my fluids and energy levels, I failed to run hard and I failed to run for fun. Blah blah blah. Probably best not to bother again then eh? So when a freelance job opportunity with my favourite company came up and the build day was marathon day in 2017, I was almost relieved to be deferring my place for the following year.

That gave me enough time to recover, train properly, reassess. Wait, that’s the wrong order. Assessment: another GFA time might be on the cards – if you have jet packs on your heels. Recovery: ha ha. Train properly: time to pick up a book. And I did, and I stuck to it, right up until the last 4 weeks. I’ve learned what I’m capable of and it turns out that, in the cold light of day, I think I can comfortably do a 4hr20 run, and if I go out of my comfort zone I could even skirt around 4hrs. But I’ve also learned that being afraid to say those words out loud is only hampering my ability to try.

What I know I can do though, absolutely KNOW for certain, is that I can enjoy it if I want to, and that enjoyment doesn’t need to be linked to (or totally divorced from) my expectations. I mean that, I need to accept failure as a possibility, but not be so obsessed with avoiding it that I miss the chance to do something great. Excuses are just another mechanism for dealing with this fear; I have to stop handicapping myself. So before I reach the Blue Start tomorrow, lose my nerve and simultaneously decide I’ll barely finish but also go off at 6:30 minute miles, I’m going to record the things I am thankful for:

  1. My place in the race. I worked really hard for it, and it wasn’t a fluke. And it doesn’t mean that I’m any less deserving of it now, even though I’m three years older and half an hour slower than I used to be. This is something I wanted to do for years and in honour of the many versions of me that couldn’t get in, not to mention the countless others still yet to get their ballot place, I’m going to bloody well have fun.
  2. The sun and the heat. This winter seemed interminable and penetrating. I’m damned if I’m going to complain about nice dry heat now. Running in the heat was a bit of a monkey on my back but I’ve embraced it and now, frankly, I sort of love it. Running in any extreme is fun actually.
  3. My Andrew W.K. playlist. It got me through Manchester. Pure, heart-busting joy.
  4. My health. Dammit, I can run. There are days when I am in so much pain that I can barely see, and there are days when I feel like my limbs are made of stardust. For those days, for those handful of moments, it’s all worth it.
  5. My job. There’s no getting around the fact that it is stressful and physically taxing, but it pays my bills and my entry fees to races, so to be ungrateful for it would be hypocritical. I have a wonderful boss and an exceptionally talented team, and no-one has ever failed to be impressed when I tell them what I do.
  6. My friends and family. The people who we thought would never dream of coming all the way to Northern Cyprus to be at our wedding. The people who probably would have joined us at the drop of a hat, if only we hadn’t underestimated the table plan. The people who will instead (or as well as) celebrate sat at a rickety little table in Shepherds Bush with us, who will share a Thai food platter and a pint of Pride. The people who do every week. The people who will wait in the sun for hours tomorrow for the three second view of me passing.
  7. Me.

Fellow marathoners – what are you thankful for? What will you take with you to tomorrow’s race?

Whatever it is, don’t let it be fear.

Pilgrims Challenge 2018

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Hello, old friend.

When I finished the North Downs Way 50 – just – back in May of last year, I swore the whole way round that I was DONE with the much-loved national trail which had been the backdrop for much of my trail running career. I’ve run this route so many times, in so many circumstances, and although I’d had my fair share of happy memories it had chewed me up so much that a return would be tantamount to masochism.

As soon as I finished my volunteering stint on Druids at the end of November, the first thing I did was sign up for Pilgrims again. Glutton for punishment.

I first ran the Pilgrims Challenge in 2015 at the start of a year that became my most prolific and most successful so far. When I took to the start line of the 2-day, 66 mile event run by Extreme Energy it was the first time I’d run two back to back marathons, and the thing I was most worried about was how the overnight camping no-home-comforts bit would work. As it turned out, thanks to the incredible support of Neil Thubron and his team, I needn’t have given it a thought. Although I have learned the value of taking a couple of clip hangers for drying out a race vest overnight and a bundle of newspaper for stuffing shoes.

This time all I wanted to do was finish, however slowly. And I knew it would be slow. I believed in my adjusted expectations instead of still vaguely hoping a sub-6 hour finish could be on the cards. And thank goodness I did, because nothing about the terrain and conditions suggested optimism.

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My trouble with the North Downs Way, I realise, is that it’s just too familiar – it beats me because it knows me so well. It knows how to lure me into a false sense of security, how to make me believe that I can push through a runnable section and straightaway knock me down, how to use reverse psychology to its most brutal effect by tempting and then taunting me. I’ve mentioned before that this route – which I know so well, have run so many times – seems to distort and rearrange itself when I’m racing. Whole tracks pop up between hills that before I could have sworn were back to back.

And the worst parts of it aren’t the hills at all. You’d be surprised how much of the trail has little or no elevation change; the demon of it is that the ground yields so easily it’s like running through sand – well, sometimes it actually IS sand. So you beat yourself up for not being able to run the “fast” bits, and wear yourself out before the real test begins. All this is what makes it surprisingly effective training for the Marathon des Sables, which is exactly what many of the runners this weekend were preparing for.

My aim really was just to finish it – I’m not humblebragging here, genuinely I’d have been happy to get to the end, given how much fitness I’ve lost. I had taken for granted my ability to grind through these distances, having been successful at it in the past, that I’d actually forgotten how to suck it up and get to the end on the tougher races. And I’d started a worrying trend of DNFs that were close to outweighing the Fs. So, get to the end, by any means necessary. There would be a lot of hiking.

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I nabbed a fairly jammy parking spot close to race HQ (tent), swapped my bag for a number and a timing tag, and huddled up with the second wave of starters. It was so cold – find me a synonym for cold, somebody, that word is gonna get WORN OUT – that RD Neil decided to hold our briefing inside the tent, having braved the bitter chill on the first wave and nearly lost his loudhailer. There was a wonderful little touch when the owner of the farm we were on blew the horn to start the race then joined us as far as the first checkpoint; just before we started he told us how, nine years ago and no kind of runner, he watched the Pilgrims competitors leave the start line for the very first time and was motivated to give this running lark a go himself.

Normally I’m quite sociable on races like this, but I knew this weekend I could be out there on my own for a very long time; this would be more meditative than conversational. I loaded up the iPod shuffle with hours and hours of podcasts – I’m a bit obsessed with Astonishing Legends at the moment – and zoned out. That’s not to say I was planning to shut myself off from the experience; I just planned to be cautious, considering how naively I’ve been diving into races recently without any real respect for the challenge. Never take a race for granted.

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This last year has been like learning how to run all over again. This race was no different. I felt comfortable through the first checkpoint nearly 9 miles in, having passed the familiar ground of Guildford and the bridge over the River Wey (where on Centurion races you will usually find Allan and his bacon butty barge), but I’d be taking it really easy. It was a long old stretch to the next checkpoint at 19 miles which included the climb to St Martha’s Church and the sandy downhill after it, but as usual it was a glorious opportunity for aeroplane arms. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but I was still conscious of it, running on my own and in my own head for a change. Deja vu – this is almost exactly the runner I was when I attempted this race the first time three years ago, too nervous to engage with anyone else. Well, maybe two of her.

By the time I got to Denbies, around 20 miles, I was feeling perfectly capable of forward momentum but there wasn’t any kind of pace in my legs. That’s fine, I thought, just keep one foot in front of the other. The downhill towards the dual carriageway is usually where I open up a bit and scoot about like a kid, but this time I was on a leisurely old lady jog at best. Nonetheless with the eerie canopy of evergreen trees, the biting chill of the clear winter weather and the soundtrack of a horror story podcast, this leg of the journey scored 10/10 for atmosphere. In fact it came as a bit of a shock to pop out onto the relative banality of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.

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Being close to freezing for most of the previous week (month) there hadn’t been much rainfall, but I still figured they wouldn’t risk sending us across the Stepping Stones. Those things are my arch-nemesis, regardless of the season. I don’t care how deep the river is or how safe they are to stand on, I still get knocked sideways with vertigo when I step on them. But no – to my horror, I watched as the snake of runners in front of me skipped deftly across them instead of diverting left to the stone bridge. It took me a good five minutes to cross – first letting the people directly behind me pass first, knowing they wouldn’t want to be held up, then giving myself a ten count and a pep talk to jump onto each one, terrified that my feet would slip on take off or landing and I’d end up a pile of bones on the riverbed. Thankfully the runners around me were very sympathetic – outwardly at least – and I got across without incident. Of course, if I’d bothered checking the route card in advance I’d have known that we were actively requested not to use them anyway. Ahem.

As unlikely as it sounds, Box Hill is probably my favourite bit. Sure it’s slow, but it does at least give my muscles a chance to swap shifts and even that change of pace can make you feel fresh again – for a few steps anyway. By this point though I was sliding beyond 7 hour finishing pace and only getting slower; not that it mattered in the long run, but I started to pile up on food to prepare myself for the energy needed just to stay warm out there. That turned out to be one small win; I never exerted myself enough to be unable to eat, which made me realise just how low that threshold really is for me. Having spent so long wondering why I struggle with food, the penny finally dropped: the reason I’m no good at it is that I’ve not been training properly for it. And it turns out, when you eat you can run for longer…

Drifting away with the fourth episode of my podcast, I pretty much trotted through the rest of the NDW section, even Colley Hill and Reigate Hill which normally reduce me to swears and tears. And again, I noticed how much easier they felt when I wasn’t running on a deficit. When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that I’d been confusing my perceived effort with my perceived pace for years. Every time I’ve done this section I’ve assumed that slowing down “a bit” would be enough to cope – certainly on previous runs I’ve been more concerned with time than I was today – but this was the first time I’d slowed enough to see a real difference in my heart rate and it shocked me just how slow I had to go to bring it down. But it also shocked me to see how much better I felt when it was under a steady limit. I’m sure if I can bring this threshold up a bit I can do that hill – that series of three hills, actually – without being overcome by nausea, either through effort or inability to eat. Have my past mistakes really been as simple as that?

And having reached the fort, although I was puttering along like a steamboat, I was still moving consistently. My Strava data won’t show that since the data seems to have gone a bit haywire, but my watch readout shows an average pace of 14:42 minutes per mile, which is much better than I could have hoped for. I certainly didn’t have any bursts of speed to call on, but by the same token I wasn’t really getting out of shape. I negotiated the instructions for the diversion to our overnight stopoff, skipped across the timing mat, and that was that.

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My “efforts” that day had bagged me just over  seven and a half hour finish – an hour slower than the first year and with one less mile to cover thanks to a course change. It was comparatively slow, but since all I had to do was get to the end I managed that with effort to spare. No massage needed, a cursory bit of stretching, the main thing I had to concentrate on was warming up. I got into my duck onesie – something I’d often considered bringing but never had the courage to until Druids last year – and curled up with my podcasts.

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The next day my legs were… still fine. Still absolutely fine. I’d had a tiny bit of cramp overnight where my lackadaisical stretching routine had missed a spot, but other than that I could have believed we were still on day 1. So another thing to be thankful for – I might not be winning any prizes for speed at the moment, but I’m using the resources I have and right now that’s experience and momentum. I don’t think it’s complacent to readjust expectations and goals as long as you recognise it works both ways. But I still had another 32 miles to go, and I still didn’t want to take anything for granted.

The previous day I’d got through a series of episodes about Black Eyed Kids – a supernatural phenomenon about hollow eyed children who demand help from strangers and curse people who give in – so naturally I was seeing them in every tree knot and dark patch of woodland. I decided to go for some more historical than ethereal and started a series on the Nazi Bell, an alleged superweapon developed during WWII that could have changed the course of European history. Being confident in the route – because that’s never stitched me up before – I let myself drift off while I put my feet back on autopilot.

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The weather on the second day was colder but clearer, and there were breaks in the clouds for the sun to shine through every now and again. The engine was as sturdy as the day before, if a little lower on power. That didn’t matter – all it had to do was last the distance. Touch wood I still hadn’t had any real injuries or even niggles to worry about or nutrition to consider. In fact I still planned to drive home from Farnham, so there was no room for heroics.

That day was about juggling three things – my ability to use the foot pedals on the way home, my ability to stay warm enough to get there, and my ability to stay conscious. Only by keeping a light touch on the tiller would I keep all three in balance – trying too hard to manage one would only jeopardise the others. If I hurried too much to get out of the cold I would either risk a tumble or shut down my digestive system, and subsequently everything else. If I stopped to eat too much I’d take vital blood flow away from my muscles. And if I went too slow and too gingerly I’d likely freeze to death out there. Somehow, keeping all these things in mind kept me going.

It was a slow day though, for sure. Not leisurely, just slow. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my arrogance got the better of me once more and I took a wrong turning at Newlands Corner, an area I’ve been to more than any other on the NDW, forcing me to double back in the claggiest and heaviest mud on the whole route. As the day wore on I became more and more alone, watching first the elites pass me, then all the one dayers, then most of my start group. I think there might even have been a walker or two overtaking me by the end. But, I remembered, my ego wasn’t going to get me home today. My feet were, and they would do it on their own terms.

As the farm at Farnham drew into sight I called on my sprint finish… and found it wasn’t there. In fact, having hiked more than half the day I still had to walk quite a bit of the last 100 metres. But neither that nor the total absence of other people could stop me from belting over the line. I must have been one of the last people home, but I’ve rarely been happier to finish a race. Eight hours, forty seven minutes and change – nearly two hours slower than 2015.

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What I took away from this race though wasn’t a result but a fresh start, a new perspective. After spending the last three years trying to help new runners I realised I was one of them again. There’s no point comparing myself to the person who finished 16 marathons or ultras in a year, the person who ran a 3:41 marathon or the person who came third in her first ever 50. Right now, I’m a person who takes two weeks to recover from a late finish at work, who sleeps up to ten hours a day and still aches in every single muscle. That said, I’m also someone with experience of running ultras, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that low points never stay low, You always bounce back eventually.

You just have to believe that you can.

Con-what-now

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Every now and again I look back over my old posts and see if, with the benefit of hindsight, I spot any patterns or consequences that I hadn’t noticed at the time. Probably I account for half of my own hits doing this, but there you go.

In 2015 I ran every day of the year and also covered 16 marathons, finishing at least one every calendar month. It was my best running year in almost every respect. I got PBs in pretty much every distance which stand to this day, ran the highest number of miles with the least amount of injury or illness – seriously, I didn’t get a single cold that year – enjoyed the fastest recovery times I’ve ever had, and above all had the most fun. I didn’t think there was any discipline involved, really. And the only “plan” I had was to keep up the streak and keep enjoying myself.

A change in professional circumstances meant that I reluctantly quit the daily run streak, especially as it was getting harder and harder to fit it in. Within a couple of months a daily run streak had dwindled to barely three times a week to injury knocking me out for weeks at a time. My running career got 2016’d, in short. I’ve reflected on this many times to work out what went wrong, exactly. Was it quitting the run streak? Do I need to run a little bit every day just to keep up my fitness, not to mention my motivation? Was it coincidence; did I just happen to get injured after I quit the streak? Was it the delayed effects of a streak catching up with me six weeks later? I definitely didn’t want to believe that last one but I eventually devoted some time to finding precedents for this situation, and happily found none. In fact I found plenty of reports of run streakers out-running injury and illness for years. But could that simply have been confirmation bias?

So I tried to analyse each elements that changed for me at the turn of the year and work out which one was the culprit.

Work-life balance: New job, more erratic hours, more stressful and less time to run and alleviate that stress. Yes, definitely sounds like a prime suspect. There’s just something that niggles about this hypothesis though; increased stress can absolutely be to blame for illness and there’s no doubt that the injury started a downward spiral of “I’m injured so I can’t run, I can’t run so I’m miserable, I’m miserable so I overeat, now I’m too heavy to run…” But can being more stressed at work really have a direct link to the injury? I mean it was only a wee one; bog standard runner’s knee, sorted within a month and even then only because I was too stubborn to rest it. I can believe that there’s a chain reaction, but I think there’s a chain link missing.

Lack of fitness: Definitely another possibility. But you don’t lose fitness just like that; not in the timescale we’re talking. I didn’t lose a damn leg. And although it felt at the time like I was never going to run again, I was still managing a couple of easy runs a week and spent no more than a fortnight without running at all. Proportionally to my expectations of myself I wasn’t doing well, but I imagine that’s what most runners call their off-season. It should have been possible for me to regain it.

Lack of motivation: Honestly? Nope. I mean there were days I felt like being lazy or avoided a session and felt guilty about it afterwards, but I still missed running, I just couldn’t do as much as I wanted. I was miserable, but not unmotivated.

Overtraining: Yes, that was a thing. That was definitely a thing – in 2017. I’m talking about a year before. It could well be the root of the issues I had later, in that I pushed myself too hard to make up for missed runs, but when I quit the run streak I didn’t feel the slightest hint of what I now know to be classic OTS symptoms. I didn’t quit because I was exhausted, I quit because I thought I should while I was ahead.

And finally, the fringiest and most superstitious of reasons, 2016: Because everything that was cool died in 2016. I’m not seriously considering this as a genuine cause, but I’m leaving it there anyway because fuck 2016.

I’ve written about all these hypotheses at one point or another, but none of them have ticked all the boxes for me, none of them present as a wholly satisfactory explanation for my loss of form. And then I read a reply to a Facebook post on the Ultrarunning Community asking how long the longest run should be in preparation for a 100 mile race. The reply was written by Tracey Watson, as far as I know the only person to have done the Centurion Double Grand Slam in two consecutive years – or at all – which means officially finishing four 100 mile races and four 50 mile races in a single year, between April and November. Now if she’s not qualified to answer this question, who is?

Her answer? She never does longer than 30 miles on a training run, not even for the 100s; the 50 milers pretty much act as training for those anyway. The key to training, she said, was consistency.

That very obvious and often-cited piece of advice made something suddenly click for me. Not that I hadn’t heard it before, but I hadn’t really made the connection. The missing link in the chain, the one thing that could explain the difference between 2015 and 2016, that even contributed to the later onset of OTS, was consistency.

I looked again at 2015. Instead of seeing my daily run as a benefit in and of itself, perhaps I was actually reaping the benefit of consistent training. The other major feature of that year was that I had relatively standard working hours and trained in pretty much the same pattern across each week, with a marathon every fourth week on average. Apart from a notable exception, each month’s running total was only around 10% more or less than the average, which includes the numbers skewed by Druids and a failed attempt at the NDW100. For the first time it occurred to me that the routine, rather than the volume, could have been the key.

Then I looked at the start of 2016. That’s not just when I quit the streak and therefore the training pattern I had been used to. Work-wise, that’s also when my hours went completely topsy turvy and when I started having to miss or rearrange races. Then I started missing sessions, and trying to make up for them by going harder and longer when the opportunity arose, not knowing when I’d get the next chance. Unsurprisingly, by February I was nursing a classic runner’s knee, and in April I was forcing myself around the London Marathon course at an effort that oscillated between suicide and sloth. After that, I didn’t finish another race until the end of August. I didn’t just lose consistency, I forgot what it meant altogether.

Between then and Wendover Woods this past November my fitness slipped gradually away and I couldn’t work out why. It felt like I was trying to hold onto sand as it passed between my fingers; I’d grasp and stretch my hands out to catch as much as possible and simply lose it all the faster. Understanding the importance of consistency felt like remembering I needed to cup my hands together. So I turned to something that hasn’t really worked for me before, but might just be able to re-establish a routine. I picked up a training plan.

I’ve never got on with them in the past either because I’d not found a plan that suited my preferred effort-based philosophy, or because I’m simply not disciplined enough to follow a plan. I much prefer the “see how you feel” approach and it doesn’t tend to let me down because I never see running as a chore, as something I have to do because the plan says so. However, the P&D plan I’d tried once before, only to discover that I had started it way too late, seemed worth a try even if I had to adjust it a bit. Each day’s session is much the same as the previous week’s, with either the addition of effort or a mile or so in distance.

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Six weeks in and already my body has got used to resting on a Monday – usually the day after a long run and a day which fits my work schedule – then doing 9 or 10 miles aerobic pace on a Tuesday (i.e. run home from work), recovery or rest on Wednesday and Friday, tempo on Thursday, hard effort parkrun on Saturday (OK I do bend the rules there) and a long run on Sunday. The fact that I can remember this without looking at the plan tells me that the consistency is working. Or to put it another way, the routine. I’m in the next phase now which means upping the effort levels and the distances a bit, but I’m building on solid foundations. At least, that’s the theory.

The thing is I’m still much much slower (and heavier) than I was three years ago, but I’m feeling more in control than I have for a long time, which means I’m enjoying myself more. All because of the comfort of knowing what my week looks like. And I won’t hit all the targets of the plan itself bang on, but you know what? That’s fine. I’m still moving in the right direction, at a steady pace, nice and consistent. If that’s the best I can hope for, it’s enough.

The last couple of years have been tough, but I don’t think I’d have made this connection and started to fix my approach if I hadn’t hit rock bottom. For my signoff today, I’m going to hand over to Truth Potato:

truth potato failure

 

 

Reading and running, my two favourite things…

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You all know I love to run. You all know I love to waffle.
What you might not know is that my absolute favouritest thing – besides my budgies and my goldfish and sometimes my human – is my bookcase.

 

I’m a subscriber to the belief that a bookshelf full of unread (or about to be re-read) books is a treasure trove of potential. It’s a world of worlds waiting for me to explore, adventures that don’t get my feet wet. I can get through a book a week on public transport, two if there’s a strike, and find that the worlds of running and reading crossover best when I’m feeling in need of inspiration. Also, I’m INCREDIBLY suggestible.

 

So I thought, I wonder how many running related books I’ve read so far? Which books have had the greatest effect on my running career? Which ones would I recommend to other people?

 

The answer to that third question is: all of them. I didn’t necessarily love all of them, but what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander (amirite girls) and the more you read the more you know what you like; if you don’t believe there’s such a thing as a junk mile, there’s no such thing as a junk page if it teaches you something about yourself. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t going to be a well-researched and insightful London Review of Books type affair where I unearth undiscovered masterpieces or out cult classics; this is simply a data dump of all the running literature I’ve ever read (and remembered).

 

So in alphabetical order, for want of any more meaningful order, here they all are. A select few either deserved comment or needed further explanation; others, not so much. If you’re looking for a way to beat those January blues, get stuck in. And if your favourite tome isn’t listed here, let me know in the comments below. I’m down to my last twenty, people!

 

Ah, this story. Combines my twin obsessions of stupidly long distance running and the years between wars. It is a truly ridiculous story, and only available in hardback that I can find. 
I mean, what can I say? I have this on my iBooks, just so I can dip in every now and again – usually to the bit about the race. This book divided opinion and being written in a journalistic, multi-narrative style it tends to take each reader on a different version of the story. To my mum, it was about barefoot running. To me, it was about how competition and pushing oneself to the limits is a fundamental form of respect. 
Don’t read this expecting to read another Born To run. Read this expecting to hear about how heroes don’t always have pecs of steel.
This book is, just like Born To Run, a book that launched a thousand ultrarunning careers. It’s easier to believe now that Dean Karnazes found himself capable of the feats he describes here but arguably it’s because, in sharing his story, he made that belief available to countless others. One hell of a character, and one hell of a classic. 
For the more serious ultrarunners out there this is an amazing pocket size coach. What Koerner doesn’t know about ultrarunning probably doesn’t need to be known, and this provides a format that can be neatly dipped in and out of depending on where you are in your training. 
Unusually for many Murakami fans, this was the first book of his that I read (as well as one of the first running-related books I read). A non-fiction account of his relationship with running and eventually triathlon, and how they support his writing work. Immediately became obsessed both with running and with him. 
I met Helen a few years ago at the end of the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 and bought a copy directly from her. Helen is lovely to talk to, but not being a runner herself (actually she’s a physiotherapist) her perspective is very much that of someone who can’t believe people run long distances (!) and her tone is a bit incredulous. That said this book tells the stories of many of the 100 Marathon Club members and was the first time I realised I wanted to be one of them.
James Adams – when he’s not coming up with diabolical ideas for races – is an invaluable font of knowledge and pretty f**king funny to boot. Don’t you hate him already? This book charts his attempts to get fit enough for a Transamerican run, and it’s about the most relatable book many of us will read. 
It’s quite neat that these last two sit together – two books charting the history of two very iconic races. The Comrades one in particular really made me see why that race is so important to so many people. 
Not a running book, actually; a book about walking the Camino de Santiago. But a heartwarming tale of endurance and humanity. 
You don’t need me to tell you why you should read these last two. 
A fascinating take on sports psychology and its practical application. Think of this as a training manual for your brain. 
See comment re: Lizzy and Kilian.
Zatopek, my running hero. I found this while looking for the best-rated book about his life and running career and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was written by Richard Askwith, author of the classic Feet In The Clouds. Sometimes when I need motivation on a 5k I chant “Za-to-pek, Za-to-pek” to myself. I know, wanker. 
I did not like this book at all. Imagine Dean Karnazes but more ego and less pathos. Then again, I know that a lot of people have found his story to be a huge inspiration, not just for running but for making healthier lifestyle choices. Perhaps I’m just a cynical old bat?
From the King of the ultra trail, this book favours the Eat part as much, if not more than, Run. A fascinating examination of the role nutrition plays in overall health and fitness, played out against the heartbreaking backdrop of Jurek’s youth. It’s kind of hard to laze out of a long run and eat Doritos on the sofa if you’re reading this 🙂 

 

Not yet read, but on the shelf/wish-list:

 

If magazines are more your thing and you can’t wait a whole month for your next Runners World, then you may want to consider supporting some of the brilliant indie publications that are available. It goes without saying that Ultra is top of any list both for quality of content and quality of publication – I struggle to stop sniffing the pages long enough to read them – and there’s a very warm place in my heart for Brian and Dawn at So Let’s Go Running, a magazine that did such a fantastic job of bringing runners together they ended up forming a club. Both magazines feature articles by your average Joe runners, and as much as Women’s Running/Men’s Running and Trail Running provide useful pro tips on training, nutrition and kit, there’s something about connecting with the story of another person just like me which makes me feel like a real runner. It’s something which appeals to me as I tend to skip over the matronly “here’s what you should do” articles and go straight to the personal accounts; in a similar vein, Like The Wind is a quarterly magazine full of stories by runners for runners and like Ultra, beautifully produced for a very reasonable cost. I hasten to add that these are all UK publications – sorry world – but I’d love to hear about your favourites, wherever you are!

 

Here’s where you tell me about the CRIMINAL omissions I’ve made – what would you recommend for the bookshelf?

 

(Note – these links are all for Amazon UK, but it’s just for convenience; I don’t see a penny of commission! If you find these titles in your local independent bookshop then by all means be excellent people and support them.)